Privacy campaigners rally against "illegal" Clearview AI data scraping

The notorious facial recognition firm claims to have a database of more than three billion images scraped from social media sites

Privacy International and several other European digital privacy campaigners have launched legal action against the controversial US facial recognition firm Clearview AI.

Legal complaints filed in the UK, France, Austria, Italy, and Greece claim that the company's methods for collecting images are in violation of European privacy laws.

Clearview AI is a New York-based startup that claims to have built a database of more than three billion facial images, which is used to power its facial recognition system. It uses an image scraper to automatically collect publicly available photos of faces, mostly from social media sites, to build out its database. It then sells access to this database to law enforcement agencies and private companies.

Along with Privacy International, Vienna-based group NYOB, the Hermes Centre for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, and Homo Digitalis, have all filed complaints that Clearview's data collection goes beyond what the average user would expect when using online services.

"Extracting our unique facial features or even sharing them with the police and other companies goes far beyond what we could ever expect as online users," said Privacy International's legal officer Ioannis Kouvakas in a joint statement.

Privacy International has also submitted evidence to the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) arguing that Clearview's practices violate GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018. It said that, as the data controller, Clearview's conduct "satisfies Article 3(2) of the GDPR as it has been reported to offer its services to both private entities and law enforcement authorities in the UK, and has engaged in monitoring of the behaviour of data subjects within the UK by collecting their personal data".

Privacy International has also pointed to reports that among Clearview's customers is the UK's National Crime Agency, the Metropolitan Police, Northamptonshire Police, North Yorkshire Police, Suffolk Constabulary, Surrey Police, and Hampshire Police, all of which either registered with its services or have trialled them.

The ICO has already been involved in an investigation into Clearview, assisting its Australian counterparts last year in a probe into the company's data gathering across social media. A separate probe from the Canadian privacy commissioner in February, found that its image scrapping was "illegal" and created a system that "inflicts broad-based harm on all members of society".

IT Pro has approached Clearview AI for comment.

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